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Traveling the 'Downton Abbey' Road: Where It Came From, and Why Viewers Are Watching
February 3, 2012  | By Noel Holston  | 1 comment

When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go... Down-tonnnn!

Okay, I've gotten that out of the way, my worst pun of the year. So far.

But let's do talk about Downton Abbey, the most watched and talked-about series PBS has had since, oh, The Civil War...

The series' Season 2 premiere, a few weeks ago, pulled 4.2 million viewers, which is a veritable Super Bowl number in the public broadcasting world. Fans are having viewing parties and dressing up in costume. It has celebrity fans. Martha Stewart pronounced it more fun than insider trading. Or interior decorating. Or something.

My feelings about the Downton phenomenon are mixed. I mean, sure, it's handsomely produced, beautifully photographed and astutely cast, down to the smallest roles. But that's actually pretty typical of the British-made dramas and mysteries that get shown here under the Masterpiece banner. And many of them are every bit as good, if not better.

For all the critical effusion over the current "golden age" of television drama -- ushered in by HBO with The Sopranos, The Wire and such like, and now encompassing such current series as AMC's Mad Men and FX's Justified -- the fact is that American television took a decade or two to catch up with the Brits on the quality drama front.


Upstairs, Downstairs, the brilliantly written prototype for Downton Abbey, debuted on PBS in 1971, when prime-time drama in the USA was epitomized by Marcus Welby, M.D. and Bonanza.

I, Claudius, the Sopranos of ancient Rome, complete with sadistic whackings and flashes of nudity, was broadcast here in 1976.

British miniseries based on John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), starring Sir Alec Guinness, were as dense and challenging as anything yet produced by an American network.

And Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) revealed literary potential in television previously undreamed of -- and still largely undeveloped.

What we're seeing nowadays on Masterpiece, in both the Classic and Mystery editions, is evidence of how the influence of British dramatic series wasn't one-way. As well written, costumed and cast as Upstairs, Downstairs and other British dramas from that first wave were, they were no better lit than American daytime soaps, and the sound was notoriously dreadful.


The serial dramas and one-shots showcased on Masterpiece in recent years boast the same vastly improved production values that mark current American series, such as The Good Wife and Treme.

But resplendent production values can't account for Downton Abbey's high ratings any more than good acting can. Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson (seen at right), was incredible -- the ultimate Dickens adaption. And the Cranford series, with Judi Dench, and any of a number of Jane Austen adaptations have been splendid.

Quite honestly, Season 2 of Downton hasn't been good as those series and others. The pacing has gone from brisk to rushed. Smartly conceived scenes aren't given time to breathe, and too much of the dialogue is thinly disguised plot points.

So, why this series? And why now?


Theories abound.

One analyst, nodding to the Occupy Wall Street movement, argues that the popularity of the series rests in its portrayal of "simmering class conflicts that resound a century later." Liberals and progressives supposedly adore the show because, in their bleeding hearts of hearts, they secretly pine for structure and order.

On Slate.com, Katie Roiphe suggested that -- like Downton's young heir, Matthew Crawley, who wasn't raised noble and actually works for a living -- we viewers are at once "disapproving of the flagrant exploitation of the estate and utterly seduced by it."

She went on to say there's "something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity."


Me? I like the costumes, the pretty women, Lord Grantham's dog, and the sardonic humor of his valet, Mr. Bates. I'm hoping for a Mystery spinoff in which Bates and his beloved, the maid Anna, bump off his nasty, estranged wife and go on the lam to America -- where they open a small motel on a quiet California highway.

But seriously...

Here's another theory, one that doesn't necessarily discount all those others about our conflicted attitudes about class -- though I would caution extrapolating the interest of 4 million viewers into a national trend. By that standard, the vastly more popular Two and a Half Men indicates we all want to be smirky lotharios.

Downton Abbey, I suggest, benefits from being in the right place at the right time.

It's a complicated, well-acted drama airing at 9 o'clock on Sunday night, a time slot in which HBO and Showtime, and other cable networks for the past decade, have conditioned viewers to expect above-average dramatic fare.

And it's being embraced not just by longtime PBS supporters, but by younger viewers for whom it's just another stop on the remote.

It's Masterpiece reaping a nice little harvest for all the seeds it has sewn over four decades.

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I, too, have mixed feelings about DA. Doesn't everyone? But the show offers a veritable treasure trove of wise words and pearls of wisdom -- see http://sightingsat60.blogspot.com/2013/01/words-of-wisdom-from-downton-abbey.html if you don't believe me.
Feb 19, 2013   |  Reply
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